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Freaks, Geeks & Chicken Beaks™

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Don't be an Idiot

Probably the most important thing I can pass along to aspiring cartoonists or fledgling authors looking to get published is that you must know what you're getting yourself into. Don't assume anything. If you have a question, ask. If you have a problem, speak up. If something doesn't sound fair and you haven't signed your name to anything yet, DON'T! No one is holding a gun to your head.

It's YOUR MONEY. Don't give it away. You want to make money, right? You're not in this to see all the money going in the other direction, are you? So don't be an idiot.

That's what drives me completely out of my skull when I hear about telephone or email scams where people are sending absolute strangers thousands of dollars. The victim will say, "How can someone take advantage of people like that? How can they be so heartless?" I say, "How can you be so stupid?!"

So don't enter into any partnership with a publisher without doing your homework. You've got to READ the contract and you've got to understand it and agree to its terms. You should retain the services of a lawyer who has experience with the publishing industry. If you just got a divorce or you just slipped on your neighbor's slippery sidewalk and figure the lawyer you used in that case will do a good job getting you a good publishing deal, you're probably wrong and probably will be very disappointed (if the guy even takes your case to begin with). Again, do your homework.

Getting a Cartoon Book Published

One of the most difficult types of books to get published is an un-themed collection of gag cartoons of questionable quality by a completely unknown and unpublished cartoonist and author. Nobody wants to touch it--or you--with a ten foot No. 2 pencil. Without a real bankable theme or some decent name recognition or both, editors and publishers just tear off the rejection slip from their pad and return your submission without further consideration. That was me with F,G&CB. But I didn't want to "give up." I should've continued improving the quality of my cartoons and gotten published in national magazines. That could have been parlayed into a collection of my gags or strips in book format.

Successful cartoonists like the late Charles Schulz, and Gary Larson, Scott Adams, Glenn McCoy, and others have published numerous collections in paperback. I own some of them myself. Peanuts, The Far Side, Dilbert, and The Duplex are popular strips. Their creators are very well known. Popular cartoons + well-known cartoonist = money in the bank for publishers (and the strip's syndication firm, which are usually one in the same).

So mine was an uphill climb—with Sasquatch in bifocals and a pocket protector peering down from the top, rolling boulders at me.

The Reality of Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishing, also known as "vanity" publishing (because it appeals to an author's vanity and his willingness to do--and pay--almost anything to get his book published), requires the author to shell out a considerable amount of cash up front in order to subsidize the production of his own book. The traditional publishing contract makes an effort to generate income for both the publisher and the author, whereas the vanity deal is designed simply to make money for the publisher. The traditional publishing contract often offers the author an advance of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (more if you're known to others outside your family, of course) before the book is printed and may also provide a royalty for future sales, above and beyond a set amount.

Keep in mind that if you haven't been able to secure a traditional publishing deal, it may be because publishers don't feel that your book will sell enough copies to make money. The chances that your book will be the one to break the mold is very slim. Don't kid yourself. I constantly told myself that my book would be a big surprise--that I'd buck the odds. But if nobody knows about it, nobody'll buy it. If nobody buys it, you don't make money. Pretty simple. If you're coughing up money to a vanity publisher and your book doesn't sell, you're out a lot of money. So you have to ask yourself, how serious am I about this? What is my real motivation? How good is this book, really?

My Experience

F,G&CB was published by the now-defunct Aegina Press of Huntington, West Virginia, under their University Editions imprint, which handled the bulk of their subsidy titles. This outfit seems to have operated out of a guy's basement. I only heard from one person between 1989 and 1993, except for invoices, which came from their accounting department. It would often take several weeks or months to hear back from him regarding a concern or problem or question I had. He would frequently misunderstand me or he'd simply refuse to resolve a particular matter to my satisfaction.

When I first signed on for my subsidy deal in 1990, I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into. I just wanted my book published. They were only asking for $1515 up front for 1,000 printed copies, and that sounded OK to me. I figured I'd be making thousands of dollars anyway. What's a few up front? And it might have been just fine--and it might be for you--had I been satisfied with the service I received.

The contract itself was basically a "boilerplate;" a generic publishing contract seemingly written up for all of their authors. I had to ask them to add "one year time limit on printing," and I had to type it in there myself. Had I not pushed for this simple addition, one that the editor dragged his feet on, I may have had to wait even longer than the 52 weeks it actually took to see my finished book.

Subsidy publishers like Aegina Press are essentially manufacturers. He simply and matter-of-factly got my book printed. They did next to nothing in the way of actual marketing, advertising, or promotion. I don't know why the word "sell" is even in the contract. This was a two-year contract that, according to wording contained therein, didn't take effect until AFTER the book was printed. But at that point their work ostensibly came to a screeching halt.

I let them off the hook with the typesetting during production because I had handwritten everything in my own cartoon style. The art used for the type on the spine was another problem. I'd sent a dummy for the cover and spine (along with the original, traditional, old-school mechanicals), instructing them to reduce the cover text at a specified percentage for the final spine artwork. They simply used the poor-quality dummy image for the spine. I was only given one opportunity to review the final artwork for the cover/spine and that was on the final, printed copies of the book. I never saw a cover proof. I'm the only person on the planet who would ever have noticed such a thing. That's what I was paying forty-five hundred bucks for and I told them so. Minor thing = BIG thing. Incompetence is rampant at every level in every walk of life. The publishing industry is no exception.

Marketing (yeah, right)

One thing you need to do if you sign a subsidy agreement is be prepared to hit the bricks selling and promoting your book. If you don't do this work yourself, it won't get done. If you're not successful at it, you'll just be wasting your time.

The contract stated that "The PUBLISHER agrees to promote and market the WORK [by] submit[ting] review copies to at least ten appropriate periodicals..." "Submission" is the key word. That means they'll mail them out. It doesn't mean they'll push it or even follow up on their correspondence. The book will sink or swim all on its own. It sank. Like a boatload of bricks.

After my own follow-up, I was able to get myself an interview with my hometown newspaper. I enjoyed doing the interview and it was great to see my name and face in the paper even if the article didn't sell a lot of books. I also attracted attention at work and got a little write-up in the company newsletter. Again, it did not translate into any significant sales for the book.

I sent letters to local bookstores, hospital gift shops, and novelty and card shops, finally managing to land consignment agreements to sell limited quantities (less than ten total copies) at three local bookstores.

So you see, I didn't have the drive or the ability to successfully get my name out there on my own and then turn that into sales. If you go the subsidy route, you've got to be savvy about the marketplace, motivated to meet people and sell your work, and prepared for disappointment and rejection. My guess is if you're truly savvy about the marketplace, you'll opt for the traditional publishing solution.


Let me be clear on one more point: I was not ripped off or taken advantage of at any point during the production and promotion of F,G&CB. Most indications are that Aegina Press was a reputable firm, albeit rather inept and incompetent in their four-year working relationship with me.

If you're serious about being an author, work with a mainstream publishing firm. If you're simply interested in sales, vanity or subsidy publishing sure ain't the way to go. If this is your dream, keep working. Don't give up. Your dream hasn't come true just because you have a thousand copies of your own book. You didn't dream about having 8 cases of books in your attic, did you? Be a writer first, then worry about becoming a successful, published author. If you've got a cartoon book idea, you'd be better off forgetting all about it. Only collections by established, successful, world-renowned cartoonists actually sell.

If I've done nothing but convince you to stay as far away from subsidy presses as you possibly can, then I've done my job. I will have been more successful than I was at selling my own book. I've still got 4 cases at my house, so if you really want to thank me for the advice, order a couple dozen of these suckers. Hell, I'll send you a case!

About Aegina Press, Inc.

First contact regarding F,G&CB.
In March 1989 I received this reply to my initial query. This letter includes the first mention of the term "subsidized." I may have been blinded by the "your idea looks interesting" comment, which I hadn't heard from anyone else up to that point. They don't call it "vanity" publishing for nothing, my friend. I followed up by sending a copy of the full manuscript.

"We would like to publish the book."
I received additional positive feedback on my manuscript in June. Because I was a novice, words like "we're afraid of not selling enough copies" and "we wish we were able to make you a better offer" did not deter me from moving forward. I asked for more information regarding their proposal and their 'marketing program.'

Some of the wording in this letter is very similar to a 1998 letter to an unnamed literary agent that I located on the Internet. If you say what someone wants to hear, you can make them do—and spend—just about anything.

Initial proposal.
In August 1989 I received this formal proposal, which outlined what Aegina Press would do in order to get F,G&CB published—and how much it would cost me. I knew going in that I was paying for this. They made it all quite clear. I especially love this: "If we can get past the figures we've quoted above..." That's a charming way of saying "take or leave it."

The "submission" and "mailing" and "sending out" of marketing materials and copies of the book was not much of a marketing strategy. Unless one was looking to make money printing a book with little follow-up effort. Of course, I would soon learn that the follow-up effort was my responsibility, a task that I was ill-prepared to handle.

F,G&CB Press Release

F,G&CB Trivia

F,G&CB was originally submitted to a select group of publishers in October 1988 under the working title "What's This Squiggly Stuff in the Dog Food Can?" The title was changed to "Freaks, Geeks & Chicken Beaks" just prior to the next round of submissions in early 1989.

About Subsidy/Vanity Publishing

This website is a great resource and includes numerous links to other sites and articles on the topic of subsidy/vanity publishing.

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